Mark Higginson

The web is a social artifact.

This short manifesto covers what I hold to be self-evident about modern marketing practices, particularly related to online activity.

This piece about how people's attention flows on the web highlights the fundamental misunderstanding that causes almost all online marketing to be ineffective.

The blog that follows consists of a series of short posts that support my arguments.


06 February 2013

Natasha Khan

Bat for Lashes

I absolutely loved the design and layout of this interview with Natasha Khan on Pitchfork. Have a look and see what happens as you scroll-down the page. Simple but so effective.

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05 February 2013

Over the last year or so, we’ve been very aggressively, proactively cutting down on agency retainers not only because we have the cost pressures everybody does, but also why should we be paying agencies for them to take that knowledge? There’s no real long-term value for Nokia. The right investment is for us to have the right people internally.

How to build a social brand: The Nokia case study

The above is a quote from Tejal Patel of Nokia. She is spot on. If you are committing effort to your presence on the web and people’s perception of you as shaped by that presence then in my opinion you need a team with an implicit sense of:

This web presence can and should be the canonical source of everything about the business, encompassing the points I allude to above.

This is a very different proposition to the typical agency campaign-driven model of working. In fact, such a team can improve campaign-based work because of their long-term focus and understanding. As such I see these efficient, internal teams becoming the people who lead agency activity on the occasion that such work is required.

Businesses do not need ‘marketing managers’ whose responsibility is juggling the overlaps between multiple agencies; they need doers whose growing abilities and expertise are kept in-house, who pass on this knowledge and make it the fabric of the business.

Note: I should point out that the article I quote from refers to Nokia as a ‘social brand’ which I disagree with. Tejal Patel also refers to Nokia as a ‘challenger brand’ which I also disagree with. If you want to read a very long analysis of Nokia’s woes then try this.

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27 January 2013

While we’re a good-natured group, we have serious respect for designers and inventors alike, and we want to make sure the design community – including everyone involved with Quirky – has all of the information needed to understand what’s going on.

OXO, Crooks and Robbers…? via Baby Got Brooms

Quirky is a business that sources ideas for products from inventors via the internet and, having used its ‘community’ to select designs, puts these ideas into a process potentially leading to production.

Quirky is accusing OXO of appropriating a design from one of its inventors and ‘took to the streets’ to claim ‘justice for Bill Ward’. This could have been a public relations mess for OXO.

Have a read of how they handled it. Cool and calm. They headed off Quirky’s little-person versus big-person marketing stunt by schooling Quirky on how intellectual property works.

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25 January 2013

Marketing time and resources

While writing my last post I came across this apposite article on the Content Marketing Institute’s website. The chart is from a report conducted by a business called ExactTarget. The sample used is rather opaque: ‘US online population aged 18 or older’ and the question itself is somewhat unclear but it is the interpretation of the data that is most amusing.

The above indicates the disparity between what marketers think the public wants versus what the public says they want:

“When customers were asked where their favorite brands should invest their marketing time and resources to improve customer loyalty, just 6 percent answered that they want related (or helpful) content from a brand. In fact, more than double that number of consumers actually wanted to receive product-related content.”

Hmm. Where does that leave this description of the point of content marketing from elsewhere on their site:

“Basically, content marketing is the art of communicating with your customers and prospects without selling. It is non-interruption marketing. Instead of pitching your products or services, you are delivering information that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.”

Hence all this hype from marketers around this notion of ‘brands as publishers’ on the web. But the chart above is telling us in a slightly confused way that:

My interpretation of this is that the ‘consumers’ who responded were thinking about finding answers to product-related questions.

The writer of the aforementioned article comes to a rather different conclusion quoting a chap from the company that produced the report:

“If you really take a look at the research, consumers are actually desperate for content from brands, but like marketers they are fixated on channels,” says Rohrs. “When consumers ask for more email and Facebook, they are asking for helpful content through those channels. What are marketers going to put into those channels… air?”

Um. Are they really ‘desperate’? Is that what these people labelled as ‘consumers’ are asking for? It sounds as though people want to know about new products and when they are aware of them want to be able to find out the details easily and in their own time, hence the lack of desire for marketing messages through other social platforms.

The response to marketing through Facebook is not necessarily to do with ‘helpful content’ but is likely an indication of a willingness to consider ‘offers and promotions’. Have a read of this survey where the top responses to the question “I connect with brands on Facebook and other social networks” were:

Note that none of these are asking for ‘helpful content’ that is non-product-related.

Reminds me of this quote from The Ad Contrarian:

“We don’t get them to try our product by convincing them to love our brand. We get them to love our brand by convincing them to try our product.”

The conclusion of the original article is most ironic:

“Make sure you take your own personal behavior out of the equation before you make any type of content marketing channel decisions.”

Yes, such as being convinced that the service you are selling to clients is one that ‘consumers’ actually want!

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21 January 2013

Following on from my last post in which I emphasised the importance of evidence to support your assertions I have provided the following for review.

I’ve looked at the analytics of all sorts of websites. The chart below shows a typical distribution of page views to posts on a site set-up as a ‘content destination’:

Posts against views

This particular site followed a blog-style format on which several posts a week appeared. The salient points are:

I do not have the data to tell how many were ‘readers’ as this was not defined at the time but it was clear the format was not working at attracting people. This was a shame as waht was being posted was great! There were no pushy sales messages. It was that elusive thing: ‘quality content’ professionally produced. No one cared.

It was this observation that set me off investigating this pattern, especially as clients were being advised to spend money on creating and publishing content that was not specifically about their core products or services. This project was the first of several, for very different brands, that demonstrated the same pattern of audience behaviour, for which I have the data. This formed the basis of my view that generalising about ‘brands as publishers’ on the web, along with the volume of content production that implies, is not a sustainable approach. Yet many marketers are recommending precisely this even though it will not help meet business objectives. This distribution is not a one-off and is a pattern followed by all content destinations, the difference is that successful sites receive massively higher amounts of attention and possess a regular readership, something that requires both significant resources and a perception of independence by the audience. At higher volumes the pattern still exists, but the critical mass of readers sustains even the long-tail of what’s being created.

This approach is useful in certain circumstances. Friends of mine run a very successful music label and as genre experts the things they post about their artists are not only popular with their customers, they’re directly attributable to sales. This does not mean their posts do not follow a similar distribution to the above. The difference is they write about their products for people who are likely to buy them so the cost of producing the posts is covered and they are very careful about ensuring this is the case; their time is precious, as should be yours.

What frustrates me is how often basic and observable behaviours are ignored and how often assumptions lead to the repetition of the same mistakes over and over again. Partly this is to do with vested interests; there are a lot of agencies out there who carry out content marketing functions who see this an opportunity to move from tactical and valuable one-off activity to an expensive and retained model of constant generation of new ‘content’. Yet these people remain wilfully ignorant of how attention flows on the web, despite the data being easy to collect and interpret.

Here are some examples of brand ‘content destinations’ that are completely ineffective at reaching an audience. The mistake in each case is to assume ‘if we build it they will come’ and that the ‘brand’ is strong enough to own a website with a readership in line with the definition of a ‘reader’ given in my last post.

Tech Page One from Dell:

“Technology. Business. Lifestyle. Those are the three pillars of Tech Page One’s content streams. Under those categories, we’ve commissioned and curated blog posts, in-depth articles, and infographics to keep you current on the major conversations in tech.”

The major question that should have been asked here is why, given the limited time people have, would they turn to a Dell-owned property for tech opinion when there is Engadget, Gizmodo, The Verge, et al. Their Twitter profile is following more people than they have followers. The design is poor as is the use of stock photography. It is doomed.

mb! from Mercedes:

“mb! by Mercedes-Benz is a magazine that documents and reflects contemporary culture and a clever, fun way of living. If you like personal and intelligent stories, reports and interviews as well as inspiring visuals reflecting the current Zeitgeist, then you’ll love mb!”

mb! from Mercedes by contrast is nicely designed and focused on a particular lifestyle with which the brand presumably wishes to be associated. In some ways this makes it worse as it is likely an even greater input of time has gone into something no-one is reading. Once again, there are any number of lifestyle destinations that do the same thing more authentically, with a more frequently updated and diverse array of feature articles. The danger is in the association; I don’t actually genuinely believe Mercedes Benz as a business has any interest in skateboarding or any of the other topics featured on this website.

What is bonkers is that Mercedes Benz seems to also be paying for a site with video content on a similar theme called the Avant Garde Diaries.

Frankly, I would love to run these sites for Mercedes Benz, but I could not in good conscience take their money because I know what little return is likely being generated. When someone at Mercedes Benz cottons on these sites are doomed.

Take a look at the number of video views generated by Avant Guard Diaries YouTube channel. The top rated video has about 4,500 views, the second 2,000, then it drops off a cliff (remember the chart above!). There are countless videos here with less than a hundred views!

mb! is likely receiving no more than a couple of thousand visits a month in the UK(*). How many are readers?

Energy Forecaster from uSwitchforBusiness:

“That’s why Business Juice started Energy Forecaster. We want businesses to be well-informed, well-prepared and most importantly, involved, when it comes to energy. The site is full of content that we hope will help businesses like yours get to grips with the importance of energy, and on-going changes to prices, legislation, government schemes and more.”

This site is a resource for businesses. The notion of ‘guides’ to selected topics is a good one. The idea of regular blogging by a panel of ‘industry experts’ is a good one. The idea of hosting this all on your own content destination is diabolically appalling and dooms this site to failure.

The worst part of this for me is that I found this site via a blog post (since removed though slides available here) about agile content strategy in which it is clear a lot of effort has gone into creating it. There was a lot of stuff around ‘thinking about the user’ with no consideration that this user is an entirely imaginary person and that, because of how attention works on the web, it is going to take vast resources to develop a readership for this content.

Apparently the site launched in May. As of writing the affiliated LinkedIn Group has 29 members, the Facebook Page has 11 Likes and the Twitter profile has only slightly more followers than followed. Many of the profiles look less than human. Doomed.

These situations have all occurred because of the vested interests that arise around a brand having a presence on the web without properly understanding whether anyone is going to be genuinely interested in coming back to these websites time and again.

What is depressing is that by collaborating with independent sites that already are destinations a far better effect could be achieved, far more simply, with far less overhead and allow for tactical campaigns that actually support measurable objectives.

tl;dr - if you are reading a post about ‘content marketing’ and there is no data to support the examples given then what you are reading is an anecdote. This is useless from a decision-making point-of-view. Challenge people on this, do not just accept their assertions.

(*) This figures were based on the anonymised data of the websites UK households are actually visiting taken from the records of UK ISPs.

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